For the first time in more than a half-century, Don Sutton has spent the summer away from big-league ballparks.
“It’s driving me nuts not to be there,” he said.
The Hall of Fame pitcher-turned-broadcaster planned to call 81 Braves games on radio this year, but a broken femur in his left leg, suffered in late March, rewrote the plan. Five months later, he still hasn’t made it back to the broadcast booth.
In his first interview since he heard his leg “crack,” Sutton described what happened that day and since then, said he soon will “graduate” from using a walker to using a cane and said he’ll return to Braves radio when his mobility allows him to safely do so, possibly before the end of the season.
“It is week-to-week as far as the physical therapy is concerned,” Sutton said. “Let’s put it this way: I’m not planning on being back at work this season, but I’m not counting it out. I think it’s possible, but I don’t know. ... Until my doctor or my physical therapist says, ‘Get ready for a long winter,’ I am not willing to concede that I won’t be there.
“I have learned it doesn’t heal as quickly when you’re over 49,” conceded Sutton, 74.
He has been part of the sound track of the Braves almost continuously since 1989, when he joined the legendary broadcast team of Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren and Ernie Johnson Sr. For 28 of the past 30 seasons, Sutton called Braves games on TV or radio, leaving in 2007 to broadcast Washington Nationals games and returning in 2009.
He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 for his 324 wins as a pitcher, including a franchise-record 233 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2015 for his success as a broadcaster.
It frustrates him to not be on the job now, especially given the stirring season the Braves are having.
“I’m itching to get back, and they’re making it harder for me by having such an entertaining year,” he said. “This is a bad year not to be there.”
He was around the team for a while in spring training and was scheduled to broadcast most home games and occasional road games this season.
“Then all of a sudden life changed,” he said.
He was at home in Sandy Springs when it happened.
“I didn’t fall. I just stood up, took a step to the left, put all the weight on my left leg, and I heard a crack,” Sutton said. “It broke just above the knee. It happened on the 30th of March. I don’t think it was my imagination hearing the crack. And then there was some serious pain.
“I think I’ve had some slight weakening of the bones in my body, so I have to be careful. It just happened to hit everything right (to break).”
Three days later, he had surgery at Emory.
“I had to have a rod put into the femur and some screws and anchors to hold it in place,” Sutton said. “Right now, I’ve got so much hardware in my left leg that when it starts hurting, I don’t call the doctor. I call Home Depot.
“I think I had the surgery on my birthday (April 2). Happy birthday, Don.”
Sutton said his surgeon didn’t put a timeline on recovery beyond saying, “This is going to take a while.” But the old pitcher figured he’d rehab and get back to the ballpark pretty soon.
“I’m not sure which was the biggest shock – that it happened or that I wouldn’t be back at work in four weeks,” Sutton said.
As weeks turned into months, he continued to make progress, even as the pace of it frustrated him.
“It’s coming along,” he said late Wednesday afternoon, the time of day he ordinarily would be in the broadcast booth preparing for a game. “I’m doing physical therapy three times a week, and I have a personal trainer who’s working with me. I have some exercises I’m doing on my own.
“I was out-and-about yesterday for about four hours, and that was a first. It’s just coming along a lot slower than I wanted and expected. I have a walker, one of those that you hold on to and walk. I’m graduating to a cane. I already am doing some with it.”
He expects a full recovery in time, based on what he hears from the medical folks.
“The thing they keep telling me,” Sutton said, “is, ‘You’re really progressing. Just don’t get in a hurry.’ To me, that sounds like an oxymoron.
“I’m at the point right now where mobility and stability are the two issues. If I’m in the booth and the booth catches on fire, I’m in trouble. It’s safety first more than anything. One of the things about my personality is I wish I knew an exact date so I could plan for it.
“Good things are happening with the PT. I’m getting stronger and more independent. That’s the key, getting independent. ... I feel good. It’s just frustrating.”
At his home a couple of miles from SunTrust Park, Sutton watches the Braves’ games on TV while listening to the call of his radio partners Joe Simpson, Jim Powell and Ben Ingram.
“I don’t think I’ve missed one game,” Sutton said. “This ballclub is amazing, and I feel left out because I’m not there to watch it first-hand.
“It has been nearly 60 years that I’ve been going to the park every day in the summer.”
As his absence has grown longer, many fans have inquired about Sutton’s condition. They ask the Braves, ask the radio stations, ask his fellow broadcasters, ask the newspaper. He appreciates that people care.
“The nicest thing that has been said is, ‘We miss you,’” Sutton said. “The best thing I can say is, ‘Not nearly as much as I miss being there.’”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.